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Reminding people of their religious belief system reduces hostility: York U research

York University

TORONTO, Oct 15, 2014 - Few topics can prove more divisive than religion, with some insisting it promotes compassion, selflessness and generosity, and others arguing that it leads to intolerance, isolation and even violence.

New research conducted at York University, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, may shed some light on religion's actual influence on believers - and the news is positive.

"Based on our premise that most people's religious beliefs are non-hostile and magnanimous, we hypothesized that being reminded of religious beliefs would normally promote less hostile reactions to the kinds of threats in everyday life that usually heighten hostility," says researcher Karina Schumann, the article's lead author, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

To test this hypothesis, participants either received a simple reminder of their religious belief system ("which religious beliefs system do you identify with?") or not. They were then exposed to either threatening experiences (such as thinking about their own death or failing at an academic assignment) or not. They were then given a chance to judge and assign punishments for transgressors, criminals and worldview critics.

Across nine different experiments with 910 participants, the results consistently supported the hypothesis for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus alike. The religiously reminded were significantly less hostile and punitive in the threatening circumstances than the non-reminded participants were (there were no effects of the religious reminders among the non-threatened participants).

"Our research suggests that people generally associate their religious beliefs with Golden Rule ideals of forgiveness and forbearance, and that they turn to them when the chips are down, in threatening circumstances," says York U psychology professor Ian McGregor, the article's second author. "This research contributes to the current dialogue on religion by demonstrating that even brief religious belief reminders not accompanied by any explicit beliefs or injunctions tend to promote more magnanimous, less hostile choices in threatening circumstances."

Though the researchers say the link between religion and magnanimity may seem surprising given that news headlines so often focus on atrocities committed in the name of religion, their results suggest that for most people, the influence of religion may be more positive than what is often portrayed in the media.

"Part of the reason for our magnanimity finding could be that in our research we focused on religious ideals, whereas extremist groups may often be more focused on intergroup rivalries and coalitions than the core religious ideals of love and forgiveness," says Schumann. "Future research is needed to determine whether reminders of religious belief can also foster magnanimity in non-Western countries, among less educated individuals, and in the context of high-stakes conflicts in which transgressions are committed by others with competing religious convictions."


York University is helping to shape the global thinkers and thinking that will define tomorrow. York U's unwavering commitment to excellence reflects a rich diversity of perspectives and a strong sense of social responsibility that sets us apart. A York U degree empowers graduates to thrive in the world and achieve their life goals through a rigorous academic foundation balanced by real-world experiential education. As a globally recognized research centre, York U is fully engaged in the critical discussions that lead to innovative solutions to the most pressing local and global social challenges. York U's 11 faculties and 27 research centres are thinking bigger, broader and more globally, partnering with 288 leading universities worldwide. York U's community is strong − 55,000 students, 7,000 faculty and staff, and more than 250,000 alumni.

Media Contact: Robin Heron, Media Relations, York University, 416 736 2100 ext. 22097 /

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